By Grigor Hakobyan
As the one year anniversary of the Four Day War in April of 2016 is fast approaching so is the military escalation along the frontlines in Artsakh gradually intensifying. Almost no week goes by without human losses suffered on either side of the unresolved conflict. Relative military parity established by the warring sides since last war coupled with a cold winter and barely passable roads in the region seemed to have deterred new Azerbaijani military aggression from resuming thus far, however as the weather warms up in addition to declining oil output and devaluation of the manat-Azerbaijani currency, and new accumulations of military capabilities by Azerbaijani military, Armenian armed forces are expecting to face yet another violent attempt by Aliyev’s government in Baku to forcefully change the status quo on the ground either this year or within next two years. We will examine a number of most likely scenarios for the resumption of the war in the region and their most likely outcomes in this article by taking into account present factors at play both regionally and internationally.
Last year, after accumulating a vast combat arsenal Azerbaijan embarked in a military adventure, a blitzkrieg that was meant to break through Armenian defense lines along the line of contact and capture Stepanakert. The plan envisioned the creation of a false impression of Azerbaijani forces trying to take over parts of Hadrut or Mardakert region in hopes of drawing away Armenian reserve forces from the center of Artsakh Republic to defend its northernmost and southernmost positions. In case of successful implementation of the first phase of the attack, in the second phase of the attack Azerbaijani troops were planning to cut through Askeran region by capturing Akan (Agdam) and finally Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh Republic. However, due to strong resistance by Armenian frontline troops along the entire line of contact, rapid mobilization of Armenian forces and volunteers, many of them being veterans of previous Artsakh liberation war of 1988-1994, Azerbaijan failed to register significant progress in any direction, but captured several positions in the north (Mardakert region) and south (Hadrut region) of Artsakh Republic.
The Armenian artillery units were able to quickly uncover the amassment of a large number of Azerbaijani tanks and infantry units in the direction of Askeran Region and quickly destroyed them before they could even launch their second phase of the assault. Additional Azerbaijani reinforcement sent towards their positions near Askeran in support of the previous assault units were also quickly destroyed before they could even reach the line of contact. Thus the Azerbaijani blitzkrieg failed in the middle of unfolding operation, forcing Aliyev’s government to declare a unilateral cease fire and request Russian mediation to stop the Armenian counter offensive. Despite loud rhetoric of a quick and winning war, and utilization of newly acquired military hardware such as modern Russian tanks (T-90s) and modernized helicopters (Mi-24), and augmented by Israeli “kamikaze” drones (Harop), large numbers of mercenaries from the Middle East (ISIS) and Turkish commando units, Azerbaijan’s military offensive didn’t significantly contribute to changing the status quo on the ground but left Azerbaijani troops demoralized and in retreat across multiple points of the contact line.
Regional Military Balance
Presently the military balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces seems to be relatively even. New acquisitions of Israeli military hardware such as Barak-8 air defense systems and upcoming Iron Dome rocket defense systems didn’t provide Azerbaijan with any significant advantage but rather made them a priority target for the short range Armenian ballistic cruise missiles such as Iskander-E and Elbrus which without any doubt will be utilized in case of large scale military hostilities resuming again in the region. Replenishment of Azerbaijani forces with new Mi-24 combat helicopters and additional units of T-90 tanks, Solntsepek thermobaric rocket launchers, modern or recently modernized Russian self-propelled howitzers and automatic mortar launchers from Israel will not allow Azerbaijani forces to make a significant dent in Armenian defenses which are well protected and mostly located on hilltops. The terrain surrounding most of Armenian defense positions will prohibit Azerbaijanis from utilizing tanks and other combat machinery on a large scale despite any air coverage that combat helicopters and attack drones may provide them.
Subsequent large arsenal of anti-tank weapons such as SPG-9, a variety of modern RPG rounds, Kornet rockets, Armenian modifications of European MILAN systems, and Russian supersonic Khrizantema anti-tank missile systems are capable of nullifying Azerbaijani numerical advantage in tanks and armor in the battlefield. Relative numeric advantage of Azerbaijani aircrafts is not capable of playing a significant role in a future conflict either. Long range air-defense radars such as Nebo-M and Armenian multilayered air defense systems made up of modernized 2K11 Krug, S-125 Neva/Pechora and S-300v4 batteries, Osa and other air-defense systems together with a number of modern MANPADS such as different variations of Igla and new Verba are capable of neutralizing Azerbaijani aerial threats to Armenian forces. Newly acquired anti-drone defense systems, some of them built in Armenia itself, serve as an additional layer of defense for Armenian forces against aerial threats posed by “kamikaze” drones in the possession of Azerbaijan.
Globally, the situation doesn’t favor a resumption of war in Artsakh either. With the election of Trump in the United States and the subsequent shift of strategic priorities for America from Caucasus and Central Asia to Europe, Middle East and Asia Pacific regions former competition between Russia and the United States in the Caucasus and Central Asia is currently on hold or greatly reduced which has minimized chances for a military clash in the region between the two superpowers over NATO expansion or security of oil and gas pipelines. Now that the US is already exporting its own oil and natural gas to the world markets in addition to the coming online of Iranian and Iraqi oil production, the importance of Azerbaijani oil and gas pipelines is vastly reduced. In Europe, rattled by Brexit and overwhelming flow of large number of refugees from Middle East has left the EU structures busy trying to keep the union together, defending liberal values and countering the rise of right-wing parties in Germany and France. However, that doesn’t mean that Azerbaijan will not attempt to resume the war anyways.
The next round of Azerbaijani aggression will occur most likely due to domestic upheaval in Azerbaijan where starting war with Armenia in hopes of scoring a few victories in the battlefield will serve to distract Azerbaijani populace from expressing their grievances with Aliyev’s ruling regime in Baku. Falling oil prices and drying out of oil wells will further push Aliyev’s regime to unleash an all-out war against the republics of Armenia and Artsakh if not this year then within next two to three years. Resuming war in Artsakh will be a way for Aliyev’s regime to preserve its rule and control of Azerbaijani’s economy for another five to ten years before it is overthrown by popular uprising within Azerbaijan. If any peace treaty is agreed upon between Armenia and Azerbaijan the ruling regime in Baku will have no other choice but to deal with popular discontent at home and wage war against its own people thus bringing its own downfall perhaps sooner than later and or otherwise. Therefore resuming war in Artsakh will be the most expedient way for Aliyev’s regime to suppress its own domestic opposition while holding on to power longer than it actually can.
War Scenarios and Most Likely Outcomes
There are three most likely scenarios for the resumption of war in Artsakh. The first scenario has unfolded last year when Azerbaijani forces attacked the north and south of Artsakh in hopes of drawing Armenian forces away from the middle to its extremities while carrying out decapitating strike from the middle in hopes of taking over Stepanakert. Considering that this scenario failed last year a replay of this scenario may happen if the conclusions drawn by the Baku were lack of sufficient number of forces and armaments to overwhelm the Armenian defenses. Therefore this time it will double or triple the number of troops and hardware to achieve its objective. The outcome of such a scenario in most likelihood will be no different from the similar attempt conducted last year when Azerbaijani forces were stopped, defeated and pushed to retreat except for the loss of several positions along the contact line that continue to remain under occupation by Azerbaijani forces.
The second scenario will most likely be the opposite of the first. Specifically this time the first phase of the attack would come toward the center of Artsakh across Askeran Region to draw away Armenian reserves from the north and south toward the center for defense of Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh. During the second phase of the attack Azerbaijani forces will attempt to attack the Mardakert Region (north) and Hadrut Region (south) with overwhelming amount of firepower and personnel to overrun Armenian positions in at least one of the regions in hopes of occupying either the entire region or half of the region. Under such a scenario Azerbaijani forces will resort to utilizing large number of combat helicopters and drones to make their way across the battlefields in an effort of achieving one of their primary objectives-partial or full occupations of either Mardakert or Hadrut region, if not both regions all at once. In most likelihood, the outcome of such a scenario will be the same as first scenario, insignificant Azerbaijani gains and large losses in personnel and military hardware across battlefields if Armenian forces choose not to launch a counter offensive bur rather remain in a static defense mode.
The third most likely scenario will amount to an all-out war across two lines of contact, one in Artsakh and another one in Nakhichevan autonomous region. Under such scenario most populated towns and villages of the Republic of Armenia including Yerevan, the capital of Armenia will become a target for Azerbaijani rocket-artillery forces. Large scale movements of Azerbaijani infantry and tank formations across Ararat valley in an attempt to cut Yerevan-Goris-Stepanakert highway passing near Yerasxavan would be part of such a scenario. Breakout of war in Nakhichevan will most likely draw Turkey and Russia into the conflict where Iran will become a wild card. Iran may choose to join either one of the warring parties or make their own attempt to take over the province under the guise of reestablishing stability in the province or inserting their own peace-keeping forces as the only neutral power in the region capable of mediating between the two warring parties. Under the third scenario the attack from Nakhichevan will take place in conjunction with one of the previous two war scenarios discussed previously.
Without any questions such an attack from Nakhichevan will force the Armenian military to counter attack and in case of a successful offensive, to take over the entire province. The outcome of such a scenario will be most devastating to Armenia unless Armenia decides to take preventive measures by carrying out preemptive strikes in Nakhichevan and taking over the province in the early days of the war. For Armenia it will become imperative to seal the open border between Nakhichevan and Turkey to prevent incursion of Turkish troops into the province and their further advancement toward densely populated Armenian towns, including Yerevan. Under such a war scenario, in light of overwhelming attack by Azerbaijani forces, the Armenian side will be forced to target Azerbaijani’s critical infrastructure to force Azerbaijan to capitulate.
For Azerbaijan, the outcome of third war scenario would be a large number of devastated oil refineries and oil rig platforms, railroads, oil and gas pipelines, destroyed Mingechaur dam, and devastated cities of Khazakh, Barda, Tartar, Gandzak (Gyanja) and number of other frontline towns and villages along the line of contact. Just the destruction of Mingechaur dam will cause the flooding of nearly a quarter of Azerbaijan’s territory laying in close proximity to the Kur River. The flooding of towns and villages, and military positions along the Kur River would cut off Azerbaijani military installations from their mainland to the east of Kur River allowing the Armenian troops to kill or capture nearly all Azerbaijani troops located to the west of the Kur River. In most likelihood, Azerbaijan will lose another region or a number of regions to Armenian counter offensive. Concurrently in Baku, just like it happened during the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war in early 1990s, another military revolt will violently overthrow Aliyev’s regime in Baku and send the ruling family into either exile or prison. Additionally, the unfolding of this war scenario would result in tens of thousands of casualties on both sides of the conflict and a new wave of refugees rushing into neighboring countries, including Russia, Central Asia and Europe.
Under any of the abovementioned scenarios significant loss of life and military hardware would be unavoidable. Although Azerbaijani defeat under the first and second war scenarios is nearly guaranteed, the third scenario is most likely to be the most devastating for Armenia. The third scenario has the potential of spilling out from the confines of the southern Caucasus region and involving Middle Eastern powers such as Turkey and Iran in the conflict. The prolongation of such a scenario may also put Russia and NATO on a course of collision and sparking a world war between major and minor powers each trying to redraw the Middle East to fit their own strategic interests. Such an outcome may also extend to a clash between major Asian nuclear powers such as China, the Koreas, India and Pakistan in one way or another who will consider a world war across continents as an opportunity to solve their own domestic and regional security problems. Therefore it is imperative both for regional powers and world powers to prevent a resumption of the war in the region by supporting the overthrow of Aliyev’s regime in Baku and helping to bring democratic forces in Azerbaijan to power. Perhaps only then peaceful negotiations through mutual compromises will make more sense and bear fruit. Until then, as long as Aliyev’s clan is in charge of Azerbaijan, resumption of yet another war in the region is nearly inevitable. It is only a matter of time, not a matter of possibility.
To best withstand the next wave of Azerbaijani military aggression it is imperative to raise the military preparedness of each Armenian soldier. Specifically, every Armenian soldier should undergo grueling special forces’ training including effective hand-to-hand combat and survival techniques, be able to utilize more than one weapon, including anti-tank weapons and air-defense weapons. Furthermore, last year a number of soldiers after running out of bullets had to resort to self-sacrifice by blowing themselves up with a hand grenade to avoid getting captured and tortured by Azerbaijani forces. Therefore it is only prudent to increase the firepower of every Armenian soldier by providing each one of them, especially those serving on the frontline with a personal weapon for self-defense, a powerful handgun with armor piercing bullets capable of penetrating body armor in situations of close-quarter combat. Additionally, it is necessary for Armenia to introduce and integrate new autonomous and semi-autonomous combat robots to the frontline to maximize the firepower of the frontline troops. Setting up an additional layer of self-defense by creating a national guard made up of local residents of the frontline towns and villages under the command of Armenia’s MOD need to be implemented with haste.